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In courting black support, Romney faces familiar barriers

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

(CBS News) In a presidential election riddled with surprises, President Obama can count on few electoral guarantees. For the nation's first black president, winning the African-American vote is one of those guarantees.

Nevertheless, in a speech at the NAACP's annual convention on Wednesday, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will make his case to the African-American community, attempting to establish a dialogue with black voters and making efforts to chip away at the president's overwhelming lead among them.

A look at recent polling reveals Romney has virtually no hope of making major inroads with the black community before this November. According to Gallup tracking data from June 18-July 8, just 5 percent of black voters plan to support Romney at the polls, compared to the 87 percent who say they will vote for Mr. Obama.


Watch an excerpt of Romney's speech at the NAACP on Wednesday in the video to the left.

This is a pattern that has been repeated throughout history: Gallup data compiled from pre-election surveys shows that since 1988, when it began tracking support among black voters, no Democratic presidential candidate has received less than 88 percent support among African-Americans. In 2008, Mr. Obama received 99 percent of the African-American vote. Meanwhile, no Republican presidential candidate has earned more than 9 percent support from black voters during that period.

"This is business as usual," Gallup's editor-in-chief, Frank Newport, told CBS News. "Black voters are the most solid demographic group in America today."

On the campaign trail, Romney has done little publicly to combat this historical disadvantage. Other than a school visit in West Philadelphia last month, where he faced some pushbackover remarks about class size and parental involvement, the candidate has not, according to CBS News records, held any major events with predominantly black audiences.

But now, four months before the election, the Romney campaign insists it's committed to changing that pattern.

"Mitt Romney is committed to competing in the black community despite the odds," said Romney senior adviser Tara Wall in an email. "If elected by a majority this November, President Romney will be a leader to all. Speaking to members of the nation's oldest civil rights organization and establishing a dialogue with black voters, communicating his record of achievement and solutions for fixing a broken system of unfulfilled promises is paramount."

Missed opportunities?

Even if Romney's campaign has only recently embarked on a serious effort to win black support, some conservatives have expressed optimism -- or at least hope -- that his decision to speak before the NAACP signals a broader commitment to starting a conversation with the African-American community.

"I'm hoping, as I hoped in 2008, and 2004, and 2000, and 1992, that the Republican nominee goes to the NAACP and says something worth hearing," said former Republican National Committee head Michael Steele, the RNC's first black chairman, in an interview with CBS News.

"This is, in my estimation, a central voting bloc. The GOP has an historical link to the black community, and we should not overlook that. I hope Mitt Romney goes to the NAACP and has an honest conversation about what he believes and why it's important for black voters to take a moment to hear him out."

Theoretically, November could present a significant opportunity for the GOP to build support among African-Americans. Black voters, like almost all other American voting demographics, prioritize jobs and the economy as their top voting issues for the November election -- and at 14.4 percent, the unemployment rate among African-Americans is more than 6 points higher than the national average. This is on top of long-held patterns showing that religious African-Americans tend to overlap with conservatives in their views on a number of moral and family issues.

"Social issues really have not been winners for the GOP in terms of African-American outreach, but I think what we're seeing now is an opportunity for Mitt Romney to speak very directly to this bread and butter issue," said Amy Holmes, anchor of GBTV's "The Blaze" and a former speechwriter for former Republican Sen. Bill Frist, in an interview with CBS. "African-American voters care about the economy just as much as everyone else -- perhaps even more. Because when America's economy catches a cold, the African-American economy catches pneumonia."

Romney, Holmes argues, can make his case to black voters by asking them to consider a simple question: "What have you done for us lately, President Obama?"

Playing the long game

As much as Republicans argue that Democrats take African-American support for granted, there's a sense among many black Republicans that the party has failed to make the long-term efforts needed to capitalize on the resulting political opportunities. 

J.C. Watts, a former Republican congressman and currently the chairman of the consulting firm J.C. Watts Companies, is skeptical that Romney's remarks before the NAACP will have any real significance.

"With all due respect to Governor Romney, he's probably doing it to check the box," Watts told CBS News. "Having a Republican candidate speak at the NAACP convention is like trying to build a house starting at the roof. If you don't have a foundation, the roof isn't going to stand."

Watts argues that the Republican Party is not serious about dedicating the time and money necessary to establishing serious ties with leaders in the black community. He wonders why, for example, the GOP isn't working harder to form strong relationships with southern black religious leaders. "Republicans think that the NAACP is the only voice in the black community. It is a voice in the black community. But it's not the only voice."

"The establishment wonders why we can't get more of the black vote," he added. "It's because it's not doing the things necessary to establish a deeper relationship with the black community. Most black people don't think alike. Most black people just vote alike."

Steele, who was RNC chairman from 2009 to early 2011, expressed a deep frustration with the party for failing, in his eyes, to adequately invest in building up African-American constituencies since his departure. Instead of pounding the pavement in new communities and putting forth black candidates, he argues, "they've thrown up a website and put some black faces on it."

"It's always five months before the presidential election that they're concerned with getting the black vote -- but what about the three years in between?" he asked. "If the party is serious about not becoming irrelevant by 2016, then get off your ass and engage the people. Address the problems and concerns in an unfiltered way. Have an honest moment in which you recognize where you're falling short, and put on the table your willingness to grow."

Asked about its ongoing efforts to build communities with black voters, Sean Spicer, the current RNC communications director, said the group is "reaching out to all Americans who believe the country is headed in the wrong direction."

Sending a message

The task of building a significant base of support in a demographic so overwhelmingly and historically Democratic is, admittedly, a daunting one.

"It's tough to weigh into a political debate when you feel like 90-plus percent of those voters are against you," said Holmes. "But leadership requires having the courage to engage even when it's uncomfortable. The Republican Party needs to do a better job of speaking to all of our citizens, even when it doesn't pay off immediately at the voting booth. It's about leadership and compassion."

For Romney, establishing his own relationship with the black community is crucial for another reason, too. After a lengthy and contentious Republican primary process, in which some of his GOP rivals invoked racially-tinged rhetoric, distinguishing his positions on race and class from those of his more outspoken rivals could be paramount to how voters perceive him this fall.

"He needs to send the message to white independent voters that he is not racist, for lack of a better term," according to Ange-Marie Hancock, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in African-American politics and race relations. "Romney really has to establish that he is independent from the Tea Party and that, as president, he won't make decisions at the behest of the Tea Party. I think he faces that challenge more generally as well because he's switched his positions on some issues in the past."

The speech to the NAACP, she says, represents a test for the former Massachusetts governor. "I think the challenge to Romney is really going to be presenting himself as someone who is in touch with the challenges of the economy. How are his policies actually going to produce more jobs for African-Americans?"

Hilary Shelton, Director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau, is urging Romney to address such questions in detail during his Wednesday remarks.

"We want to hear what he has to say, very specifically, to our issues," Shelton told CBS News. "One of our biggest frustrations as we watched the Republican debates is that they never asked those questions that are specific to the African-American community."

Regardless, Shelton sees Romney's mere presence tomorrow as a "positive indication."

"The start of any relationship is the willingness to sit down and get to know each other," he said.

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